At least war correspondents ventured into war zones (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images)

March 10, 2021   6 mins

Among academics and reporters who make it their business to watch horrifically violent material, there is a consensus that a propaganda video released by ISIS in September 2016 is the very worst of the worst: it shows alleged spies being killed in the most inhuman way.

I made a point of not watching this slaughterhouse video, even though for the past two years I’ve been doing a Leverhulme-funded study on how different audiences respond to jihadi execution videos. I’d already watched my fair share of jihadi snuff, and I doubted that watching another monstrous ISIS film would have enhanced my understanding of the group and its propaganda. (ISIS, let us not forget, has used children in videos to kill hostages and has filmed a group of men in a cage being lowered into a swimming pool.)

This is the bit in the article where I’m supposed to tell you about how watching copious amounts of jihadi atrocity porn has left me mentally scarred and traumatised, and how even the most innocuous thing can trigger a memory of watching a captive getting his head cut off, blown off or crushed by a tank. It’s the bit where you’re supposed to marvel at my bravery in taking on such a dark subject, martyring myself in the name of public social science: “I watched these godforsaken videos so you didn’t have to…”

Well, that’s not my “truth”, and we’ll get to that in due course. But in the meantime: what are we to make of the increasingly repeated claim that doing research on any one of the vast litany of horrors in human history is a mental health risk? Such statements must, of course, be taken seriously. But by foregrounding the experiences of the researcher at the expense of history’s actual victims, do they not risk veering into moral narcissism?

As part of my research, I’ve interviewed jihadism scholars, researchers and journalists who have exposed themselves to this material over an extended period. The overwhelming conclusion that emerges from these interviews is, as you would expect, that watching jihadi atrocity videos exerts a mental toll on those who do it.

Michael Krona, a media scholar researching ISIS and Salafi-jihadist propaganda at Malmö University in Sweden told me: “I think the videos with kids as executioners could be the worst thing that I have seen. That really got to me emotionally, especially as a parent myself.” Referring to the material he was watching and documenting back in 2015, when ISIS was pumping out more than 200 videos, radio programs, magazines and photo reports a week, he said: “It was impossible for me to switch off. I had to start counselling around that time when it became too much. It took a long time before I could learn to structure the exposure and to make it emotionally bearable.”

Other researchers have testified to similar feelings. “There are moments, I find, where my everyday life is invaded by these scenes,” jihadism scholar Charlie Winter has said of ISIS’s worst atrocity videos. Seamus Hughes, who researches extremism at George Washington University, has likewise said: “You look at violent imagery all day, and it gets to you. And you want to tell yourself it doesn’t, but it does.”

I can readily understand and empathise with their reactions; when I first started doing my own research on ISIS video-propaganda, I experienced several months of night terrors, which I duly treated with alcohol and antidepressants. (I don’t recommend this.)

But the temptation to classify these unpleasant experiences as clinically traumatic seems to me not just overblown but also a category-error, mistaking spiritual harms for psychological maladies to be diagnosed and treated. This certainly seems to be the case with the historian and journalist James Robins, who, in a recent article, claimed that “the phenomenon of the historian traumatised by history remains unstudied and is not widely known”. A few sentences later, like clockwork, comes the bit about Robins’s own torments:

“After writing a book on the Armenian Genocide, a process that took me five years, I found it impossible to slip comfortably into sleep. All kinds of catastrophes visited me — still visit me — in that space before dreams: ugly visions, jarring scenes from my research.”

I have encountered similar expressions of anguish — mostly on Twitter, of course — from colleagues in my own field of criminology, especially those who visit prisons, detention centres and interview victims of abuse. Some have even published peer-reviewed articles about their experiences of trauma.

Of course, anyone who probes these accounts with a sceptical eye risks being denounced as an insensitive prick. But it is hard to avoid the air of moral narcissism that hangs over some of these trauma accounts. After all, the moral narcissist is, as Ed West recently observed, someone who manages to make everything, including the most atrocious deeds and crimes in faraway places, all about them.

The historian Karen Halttunen brilliantly captures the type in her article on “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain”. Discussing the English humanitarian reform movement of the eighteenth century, Halttunen described how it was inspired by a “cult of sensibility”, with its heroic exemplar being “the man of feeling” whose “tender-hearted susceptibility to the torments of others was the mark of his deeply virtuous nature”.

The so-called “man of feeling” was also a man full of shit, buying and showing off the “tableau after tableau of pitiful suffering” for the purpose of, in Halttunen’s words, “enhancing (and demonstrating) their virtue”. And it didn’t take long for others to notice their hypocrisy, as Halttunen records:

“Oliver Goldsmith ridiculed sentimentalists for weeping over the sufferings of helpless animals even as they consumed at dinner the flesh of six different creatures in a single fricassee…. John Keats and William Hazlitt would soon charge that the poetry of sensibility actually explored not the feelings of the imagined sufferer but the feelings of the spectator watching that sufferer and was geared to demonstrating the spectator/reader’s own exquisite sensibility.”

However, the most serious charge levelled against the humanitarian sentimentalists was that they were secretly getting off on spectacles of suffering; that they were voyeurs. “The literary scenario of suffering, which made ethics a matter of viewing the pain of another, from the outset lent itself to an aggressive kind of voyeurism,” Halttunen noted. The reformers were aware of such criticisms, and therefore “filled their writings with close descriptions of their own immediate emotional response to the spectacle of suffering, to demonstrate that their sensibilities remained undamaged”.

This, I think, helps to explain the proliferation of trauma discourse among academics interested in human malevolence and cruelty: their public proclamations about how their research has left them traumatised serves to deflect or pre-empt any suspicion of voyeurism and resultant desensitisation. They are decent men and women of feeling, after all.

But there’s also another, perhaps even greater, incentive at work: namely, the seemingly inexorable temptation in our culture to proclaim a victim status. By portraying their research-work as potentially dangerous and traumatising, privileged academics who would otherwise have little or no warrant for claiming victimhood can do so, and thus enjoy the deference and accommodation that comes with such a status.

As one well-known war correspondent told me, on the condition of anonymity:

“There is a bit of a trauma sweep-stakes that has come into existence, where one of the ways that you can get credit is by describing how much you’ve been hurt, which creates an incentive for people to over-perform the wounds that they’ve received…

When I’ve given talks on ISIS, at least at every other talk there’s someone who asks about how awful it’s been for me, and I will always be honest about that. I’ll say I would not recommend that anybody do this who’s sensitive to these types of things, but I’m okay. I’m worse for having seen these things, but it’s not something that’s going to destroy my life. I know what the reaction of those audiences will be when I say that. They are hoping that I say that this has really fucked me up. There are correspondents who, throughout their whole careers, have made a lot of hay out of saying how war has really screwed them up, even though they were never well to begin with. You don’t get a book contract by saying I went to these horrible places and was fine. Nobody’s going to read that.”

But at least war correspondents, however prone some may be to self-pity and self-dramatisation, ventured out to war zones and, in many cases, put their lives on the line in doing so. By contrast, the trauma merchants of the ivory tower have taken no such risks, physical or moral. And yet here they are engaging in online bonding rituals over the profundity of their moral sensitivities.

For if trauma is to mean anything, it has to mean real suffering that comes from direct and close confrontations with death, dying and mortal threat. However uncomfortable it is to conduct research into dark episodes of human history, it isn’t remotely comparable to witnessing real horrors or being on the receiving end of them. That isn’t to doubt the sincerity of those researchers who claim to be traumatised. But it does strike me that the symptoms of psychological distress they report, from sleeplessness to anxiety to palpitations, are really vestiges of moral shock and disturbance.

 “Every time I saw an execution by ISIS, and felt my soul diminished, that feeling of diminution also reminded me that I still had a soul left to wound,” wrote Graeme Wood in a brilliant essay on his own experiences of watching jihadi atrocity propaganda. As I understand it, the diminishment Wood is referring to is the nasty realisation that, just like those poor souls whose grisly demise we have chosen or happened to watch, we, too, will die — even if it is in less violent circumstances. The problem with medicalising these universal feelings of dread and vulnerability is that it implies that they can somehow be “treated”, instead of accepted as an unavoidable part of life.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.